The sun is high, beating on the back of my neck with its relentless summer rays. I’m panting from the effort and the altitude, yet I can feel the radiance of my grin rivaling the brilliance of the sun above.
We’re making good time.
Taking a quick scan, I assess my team. All 16 of us are out of breath, and most everyone’s neon-green Team Leadville shirt is soaked with sweat — but that’s to be expected. Twelve miles along the tough trails and more than 13,000 feet above sea level, I’m just relieved to see everyone still moving.
The Leadville Trail Marathon — Life Time’s high-altitude, 26.2-mile race through the historic mining district around Leadville, Colo. — is no jog through the park. Even though I’ve run a dozen Boston marathons, the Leadville trails keep me on my toes. I wouldn’t blame anyone for calling it quits.
But beneath the sweat and the struggle, I can see everyone’s commitment driving them onward. We have something bigger pushing us through this terrain; we’re not stopping now.
I was first inspired to build a team for the Leadville Trail Marathon after completing the Leadville 100 in 2014. Though long-distance running had been a pastime of mine for more than 30 years, finishing that race exceeded my wildest expectations. It felt so good to test my limits and succeed, I began to wonder whether I could help others do the same.
I’d also recently retired from the army at the rank of colonel, and I had seen military units accomplish great things by embracing the tenets of endurance, grit, and teamwork. I wanted to create a team that embodied these core values, which I believed could power us through a tough marathon. I felt that completing the race with a team would mean more to me than doing it alone.
The Leadville Trail Marathon struck me as an ideal opportunity. Training for a marathon is hard enough; training for one featuring old mining roads and trails would require an extra helping of grit and endurance.
And although running is often a solitary pastime, I thought we could start and finish the race together to build teamwork and a sense of community. We would pick one another up along the tough terrain, regardless of ability.
As the idea grew, a couple of team members proposed running to support a veterans’ cause — we all shared a deep appreciation for our time in service, and we were also familiar with its challenges. And so that’s what we did.
After that first year, I was introduced to an organization called Warriors’ Ascent. Based in Kansas City, Mo., and run by a fellow West Point graduate, the nonprofit is dedicated to helping veterans, service members, and first responders who are struggling with the effects of trauma. It seemed like a great potential focus for our team.
What struck me about Warriors’ Ascent was its holistic approach to healing. The organization understands that combat affects the mind, the body, and the soul, and that healing is not achieved alone. Its Academy of Healing — a five-day program that teaches mindfulness practices, basic functional-movement principles, and proper nutrition — addresses all aspects of a warrior’s well-being while also cultivating a strong support network for those suffering from posttraumatic stress (PTS).
Warriors’ Ascent’s commitment to teamwork sealed the deal. When I recommended that we support the nonprofit, everyone agreed. We had found our reason to run.
One of the original Team Leadville runners, who had struggled with PTS and suicidal thoughts after his second deployment to Afghanistan, later suggested we run to support suicide prevention for veterans. Supporting this cause felt right; every one of us had known veterans and service members who had been lost to suicide. I felt inspired by the prospect of making a meaningful difference in the lives of those who were suffering.
Over the past five years since creating Team Leadville, what had begun as a lone activity for me has become so much more.
For starters, our partnership with Warriors’ Ascent has been a resounding success. Team Leadville has chosen to partner with the organization every year since 2016, and we have raised over $216,000 for their cause. That money has gone directly toward sponsoring individuals through the Academy of Healing, which means that our efforts have helped save 108 lives. I am proud to say that we’re making a real difference in the fight against PTS — a feat I couldn’t have accomplished running by myself.
I am so proud of all my runners, too. The Leadville trails are demanding, at best; each runner has had to really commit to the idea as well as have the discipline to prepare for it. In five years, 63 runners from all four U.S. time zones have joined the team, including
11 first-time marathoners.
Pre-pandemic, 56 of them had risen to the challenge — all 13,185 feet of it. And we’ve always done it as a team.
It’s even become a bit of a family affair for me, which has been wonderful. My son, Nate, has completed the race with me twice, and my wife, Susan — also a veteran, and a two-time Boston marathoner — joined six of our 12 athletes in a virtual race when Leadville was postponed earlier this year due to COVID-19. I hope that my daughters, Abby and Kate, will join us someday, too.
Most important, each member of the team has been fully committed to the cause we have chosen to support. While not all of them have been veterans, the knowledge that our efforts are going toward something bigger gives every one of us the strength we need to carry on.
I feel empowered by the fact that we are running for a worthy cause, but also that the organization we have chosen to support mirrors our values as a team. Endurance, teamwork, and grit — the very things that get Team Leadville across the finish line — are inextricably linked to helping people overcome their posttraumatic stress. We are honored to support an organization cultivating these qualities for the sake of our warriors.
With the Team Leadville runners around me, I just can’t keep the smile off my face. No amount of sweat or struggle could drown the pride I have for my team.
Although many of us could finish the race faster if we ran solo, that’s not what we’re about. We, like the warriors we run for, benefit from having a tribe to support us. As a team, we can overcome even the most challenging obstacles; it is as a team that we ascend higher than we ever dreamed possible.
Tony’s Top 3 Success Strategies
- “We all have challenging days — sometimes half the battle is just to keep showing up,” says Tony. “If you don’t have a great day, just focus on getting back in the fight. Come back the next day and keep battling.”
- Don’t let others define success for you. Tony missed the time cut for his first Leadville 100 in 2013. “I think success is less about finishing and more about putting yourself on a journey that could ultimately change you.”
- Find your grit. “Grit is committing to something that pushes your limits and having the discipline to prepare for it. You may not know what the end result is going to be, but that’s courage. That’s grit.”
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